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The disturbing true story that inspired Steven Spielberg’s Poltergeist

You will never be the same again after you hear about the true story and haunted house that inspired Steven Spielberg's hit ghost movie Poltergeist

Poltergeist: Carol Anne looking at a static TV

In 1982, one of the most iconic ghost movies ever hit the big screen – Poltergeist. Directed by Texas Chain Saw Massacre extraordinaire Tobe Hooper, the film shook a generation as audiences witnessed otherworldly beings terrorise the unsuspecting Freeling family. Poltergeist has since become a classic and is considered by many to be a fun PG-13 choice come movie night. However, the production of the hit horror movie is creepier than you’d initially think.

Written by Steven Spielberg, Poltergeist tells the story of a family who soon realises their suburban home isn’t quite normal and daily life quickly becomes scary. Furniture moves without warning, their five-year-old daughter begins talking to a static TV, and some floating pool corpses pop up too. At first, this may all seem outlandish – purely a work of Hollywood imagination. But, it turns out that the ’80s movie has some real-life influences.

While the Beast, the main dark presence in Poltergeist, is fictional, you may want to say your prayers after learning about the true story of the very real family whose haunted house inspired this shocking film’s script.

In the documentary Real Fear: The Truth Behind the Movies, Lucille Herrmann revealed that Poltergeist was loosely based on the mysterious paranormal disturbances that her family suffered. One night on February 3 1958, James Herrmann received a distressed phone call from his wife. The man was told how his family had heard strange popping sounds coming from various spots in the house.

Herrmann was also informed that once his wife and two children set out to investigate the source of the strange noises, they discovered several bottles of liquids opened and emptied, including some holy water. Like most rational folks, ghosts weren’t the first thing that popped into Herrmann’s mind. Instead, he first denounced the odd happenings as pranks from local teenagers.

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However, the same mysterious events kept happening, and on one occasion, Herrmann himself saw a bottle being moved by an unseen hand – causing him to call the police. Once law enforcement arrived, things didn’t calm down, though. Bottle lids popped throughout the house, baffling everyone on the premises.

Things got eerier after radio transmissions, and electrical disturbances were ruled out as a cause after tests by professionals. The police also reported witnessing some objects move of their own accord. So, needless to say, logical reasoning couldn’t generate any answers.

The spirit haunting the Herrmann’s was dubbed Popper the Poltergeist and didn’t calm down for a period of days after the first reported case. The presence was said to have thrown around porcelain figurines, knocked on walls, and spilt more bottles of liquid around the joint. Basically, Popper was an unstoppable menace.

Poltergeist true story: a ghost scaring the family

“All of a sudden, you’d hear this loud noise, like a popping bottle sound, and you’d look around and find a bottle that was 12 feet away from where it was supposed to be, and all the contents were missing, and the bottle was hot to the touch,” Herrmann explained in an interview with Huffington Post, recalling her childhood.

Finally, a priest was called to bless the home after all these disturbing events. But unfortunately for the family, the religious intervention didn’t work. Popper remained in the house, popping lids to its paranormal heart’s content. The strange case eventually caught the press’ eye and was reported in an issue of LIFE Magazine.

The Herrmann’s supernatural problem set the US into a frenzy of curiosity, with readers also sending the family suggestions on what may be behind their issues. Media attention was high, and the entire nation was fully hooked on figuring out the cause behind this haunting.

Poltergeist true story: Steven and Diane in bed

After all, the Herrmann’s home wasn’t your typical ghost beacon from films and literature, making this paranormal case stick out as uniquely abnormal. Firstly, the house wasn’t an old building but a new model home. Secondly, ghosts are believed to be attracted to holy and religious items, which explained the spilt holy water but didn’t account for the other disturbances reported.

Dr J.B. Rhine, director of Duke University’s Parapsychology Laboratory, believed that the paranormal activity in the Herrmann house might be due to the teenage children of the family. His theory was that spirits were attracted to the adolescents instead of the building itself.

Lucille Herrmann was 13 years old at the time, and Rhine theorised that psychokinesis could occur during the height of puberty. However, this was never proven, as paranormal activity suddenly stopped before any strange phenomenon surrounding the Herrmann youngsters could be confirmed.

Poltergeist true story: Carol Anne communicating with the TV

Before Popper went silent for good, the spirit had 67 recorded disturbances between February 3 and March 10 under its belt. Priests, police, electricians, plumbers, building inspectors and parapsychologists couldn’t find a satisfactory explanation for Herrmann’s haunting – making Popper one of the most curious paranormal cases in history. And according to The Huffington Post, the whole event is also credited for popularising the term poltergeist itself.

So, it isn’t surprising that decades later, after Popper captured the collective attention of the US, Spielberg would draw on the case while writing the script for the famous monster movie about a family suffering from spirits. In fact, his script is so close to home that Lucille avoided watching Poltergeist for years.

“I never saw ‘Poltergeist,'” Herrmann explained before sharing what it was like revisiting the house. “I felt I had my own nightmare. But when I was back in the old neighbourhood, it all came back – nothing had changed except the roof of the house. Back in 1990, the owners put a second story on the house. That made it easier. There was no emotion.”

Poltergeist true story: a child sleeping in a creepy room

Popper the Poltergeist was an unexplainable phenomenon, and without it, we may have missed out on one of the best movies ever made. After its release in 1982, Poltergeist received three Academy Award nominations and was the eighth highest-grossing movie of the year.

So, while it is disturbing knowing that Poltergeist is based in reality and that the Herrmann’s haunting has never been explained, at least we can rest somewhat easy knowing that the mysterious case spawned a classic flick. Silver linings, eh?

While we love a good old haunt, the present is a lot less scary. So here are the new movies that we can’t wait to see in 2023. You can also check out our list of the best Steven Spielberg movies if you want to see the filmmaker’s other hits.